An hour’s drive from Rishikesh, up stream of River Ganga, there is a small hamlet called Vyaasi. There are about a dozen small shops and two shabby tea vendors cum food joints in Vyaasi. The road has been widened at this point to facilitate parking of buses, vans, jeeps and cars carrying the pilgrims to and fro Kedarnath and Badrinath, the two holiest shrines of Hindus. The two tea vendors are busy the whole day serving hot, strongly brewed extra sweetened tea. The drivers’ fraternity enjoys the brew immensely and so would you provided you left your hygiene sensitivity behind and you are not a diabetic.
There is a track cutting across the road at Vyaasi. Its southern end going to Vyaas Ghaat, the bathing joint on the river bank and the upper end climbing up hill goes to an ashram popularly known as Vyaasi Ashram.
Vyaasi gets its name after the philosopher sage Vyaas, the author of the epic, Mahabharata and the eighteen Puraans, the Hindu mythology scriptures. It is believed that Vyaas lived in a cave here and thus the place got its name, Vyaasi. A cave exists but there is no archeological proof of it being the study room of sage Vyaas.
A point is worth mentioning here. Hindu mythology is too complex and confounding to inquisitive western mind and the basic reason for the same could be that it does not provide material proofs. That the men could walk on water or float in air; that there were celestial bodies crossing over from one planet to another; that a mere sprinkle of water could bless or annihilate a dynasty etc. are unresolved enigmas of Hindu mythology. Yet equally enigmatic is the fact that countless skeptical and truth seekers head east and particularly to these lesser known pockets of oriental mysteries.
From Vyaasi, climbing the track for nearly an hour, you reach the Vyaasi ashram. The ashram is not more than a mile from Vyaasi but the climb is stiff. There is a small temple in the center of the ashram. It is a Shiva temple.
Early in the morning as the sun comes out in the east, the snow on the far off Himalayan ranges glitters and in the foreground, the deodar and fir trees with their rich green coat sway with the morning breeze. Sitting by the side of the small Shiva temple, with low din of the river Ganga in the background, the audio visual spectacle is phenomenally beautiful. To the believers, it is simply divine.
A group of mendicants live in the ashram. In the hut on the right corner, which is a little bigger than the rest, lives an elderly person, they call him Swamiji. He is a man of large build, very fair, his head shaven and his forehead having three horizontal sandal paste lines, the typical identity of Shiva devotees.
One of the morning buses from Rishikesh delivers a bundle of newspapers to the tea vendors for the ashram since Swamiji is an avid reader. Swamiji is also fond of music. He has a music system and a sizeable collection of CDs. Swamiji makes it a point to bring new CDs whenever he goes to Rishikesh or any other place. These CDs are not restricted to Hindu hymns/ prayers only. Swamiji likes Jazz and Beatles equally. Besides personal taste, Swamiji has to cater for the large number of his followers coming from the West.
No one in the ashram knows what exactly the background of Swamiji was or of the visitors coming to the ashram, some of them come regularly every year. The only thing known for sure is that Swamiji was Henry Blackwell before he took to oriental spiritualism. Some unconfirmed sources say that he was the CEO of a stock brokering firm and his personal assets had touched the billion mark. His physique but suggests that he might have been an athlete or a marine commando. Story goes that he left his business and donated all his possession to a charity after his wife divorced him and married his junior partner and that he was pained when his son who he loved dearly refused to stay with him. But all these are unconfirmed stories. The known fact is that Henry Blackwell in his second incarnation as Swamiji had came to India about thirty years ago and settled in this ashram.
“I am convinced of one thing; that money can’t buy you peace,” he often tells his followers.
The temple is visited by the local populace on Mondays, the day of Lord Shiva. Between the months of July and August, when Shravan, the Hindu month dedicated to Lord Shiva generally falls, the number of visitors to the ashram goes high.
On the first Monday of the month of Shravan, the natives are bewildered and in fact, enamoured to see a white man carrying a brass pitcher of Ganga water on his head bare foot from the Vyaas Ghaat to the temple. The day has now become a local festival; the locals call it Paani Mela- the festival of (Ganga) Water Offering (to Shiva).
Local drummers and couple of bag pipers with couple of flag bearers walk in front of Swamiji. Behind him are thousands of believers carrying head load of water pots. The Swamiji performs the abhisek- that is chanting of mantras and pouring the water over the Shiv-Linga in side the small temple. The Swamiji then offers prayers and comes out, greeted by large crowd and the drummers. The ritual is then followed by rest the people.
The poverty stricken natives are overwhelmed to be present at the temple to seek the blessings of Lord Shiva through the Swamiji. They are the people of this land of Shiva with their tattered, darned clothes, sweat stained dark- generally black cap and some of them suffering from eczema because of poor hygiene.
The Swamiji says he has no desire or ambition. “We have to forgo all desires. Follow Buddha, the Tathagat, who surpassed grief over worldly losses and happiness over worldly gains.”
The poor natives too have no ambition; they are too humble to have any. They come there to propitiate Lord Shiva for safe return of their dear ones who mostly are in the armed forces, facing enemy bullets or the bullets of insurgents, Naxalites and Maoists. Or, it may be that one of their dear ones is terminally sick and they have come to pray for his recovery in the absence of any medical help. The brutal fact is that they come there with wishful wishing, which prepares them for the worst.
There is a retired school teacher, Satya Prasad who is not an inmate of the ashram but he is there almost every day. He was teaching English in a high school before his retirement. Both his sons did well in school and college and have migrated to bigger towns; in fact one of them is a medical practioner in the USA. After the death of his wife, Satya Prasad is living alone in his village, which is about three miles from the ashram. But he comes daily with a packet of dry lunch and some chutney. He is friendly with Swamiji because he can converse with Swamiji in English and he is proud of it.
Swamiji and Satya Prasad talk often on the purpose of life. Swamiji talks of emancipation, of moksha - the liberation of soul, weaning away your self from material desires.
“Concentrate on the divine cosmic power, the parmatma, leave everything unto Him.”
Satya Prasad yawns and often scratches his body parts. He has sees his folks in the villages where illiteracy, penury, sorcery, witch craft and jealously are the common traits. Satya Prasad believes getting two meals a day is the best definition of moksha.
“Swamiji, are you sincerely convinced that preaching spirituality will redeem these folks and they will have a better life?” He once asked Swamiji.
Swamiji was irritated. “You talk like an unbeliever, an agnostic.
Swamiji tries to explain from the scriptures quoting the verses from Gita and Bhagwat to Satya Prasad without much success. Swamiji preaches equanimity of mind, which he says will bring feeling of equality amongst all human beings and eradicate jealously. Satya Prasad often demurs - he wants it to be translated in to the lives of his people.
“Give them education, give them means of livelihood and that will take care of all other maladies,” Satya Prasad wants to impress upon Swamiji.
“Satya Prasad, it will take you time to understand His ways. We are too ignorant to judge Him and His will. I pray that the realization comes to you soon.” The matter rests there to start afresh on some other day.
Swamiji takes his morning tea that he makes himself in his electric kettle and thereafter he comes to river bed for daily ablutions and then goes into the thicket of the forest where he has made a small hut in woods for meditation.
Late in the evening Swamiji listens to the news. Some of the inmates join him when it is the Hindi bulletin. Mostly, Swamiji listens to BBC or CNN. Swamiji says it is our duty to be aware of what is happening around us without getting involved in it.
No one knows why Henry Blackwell had selected and opted to stay in such a remote place. He says he liked the locale, the view, the serenity, the quietude of the place.
"Can I stay here for a few days?" Henry Blackwell putting on an orange dhoti and a white kurta and with clean shaved head had asked one of the inmates when he had come to the ashram. There were only two sadhus staying in a single hut those days.
"Why not? It is all yours. We will be rather delighted to be in your company. Please share what ever is given by the Lord."
"Blessed be this land and blessed be you both," Henry Black had told them.
That was the beginning of Henry Blackwell’s new life. He himself does not remember when he was rechristened as Swamiji. It has been a long journey.
Swamiji propagates the doctrine of peace, love and Vedic knowledge. For his devotees, he is the ocean of knowledge and fountain of love and piety, divinity itself personified.
Swamiji was away on one of his visits to Rishikesh and due to return in the evening. It was late afternoon when a group of visitors came to the ashram and wanting to see him. Swamiji’s reference was enough for the inmates to welcome anyone in the ashram.
Soon the visitors started making enquiries about the personal life of Swamiji, which upset the inmates. There were too many uncomfortable questions.
"Does he listen to radio? Does he get letters from foreign countries? Any visitors, other than local pilgrims?"
The ashramites, ardent devotees of the Swamiji were
irritated by now.
"So many of his followers come here from abroad and
stay with us for weeks, some of them even for months," one of them mustered courage to respond.
“What business do you have to ask such questions? You certainly do not look Swamiji’s friends?" Another inmate questioned the propriety of the team.
"We are from Police, Central Bureau of Investigation. We have orders to enquire in to the conduct of your Swamiji and search the ashram."
That rattled all the inmates and the onlookers.
"You said he goes to forest hut every day for three to four hours," one of the officers asked.
"What does he do there?
“He goes there for meditation."
“That is non sense. He has been fooling around all these years," said one of the police officers.
"Look, this man, feigning as Swamiji has been charged of murder. He is a fugitive, hiding from American law for last thirty years.”
The inmates were shocked. They couldn’t believe that their god man was a in fact a Satan.
“We respected him and in fact worshipped him,” they broke down.
When Swamiji arrived from Rishikesh by the late evening bus, he was apprehended at Vyaasi and taken to his ashram for further interrogation.
Next morning, as the Swamiji was being escorted to the district headquarters, he saw Satya Prasad on his way to the ashram to spend his day with him.
“I want to talk to this man for a few minutes,” Swamiji requested the senior police officer.
“It has to be in my presence,” The officer told him.
“Yes, of course,” Swamiji replied.
“Satya Prasad, my past has caught up with me. I have been arraigned for my involvement in the murder of my wife’s lover in Florida where I lived before coming to this place. It is true that I wanted to evade the law by remaining in this remote place in the garb of a sadhu. But this ashram became a place of learning for me. Here, I have come to peace with myself. Now I have no fears to face the law.”
Satya Prasad was baffled and so were others present there. No one could ever imagine what Swamiji had confessed.
“Satya Prasad, I have transferred all my money and property in your name for the benefit of the locals. I know you are the best judge of their needs. You know the best way of their emancipation.
Years have passed since Swamiji was taken away by the police. They say he was convicted and sentenced for life. Satya Prasad is no more. There but now remains Swami Henry Blackwell Polytechnic School in the idyllic vicinity of the Vyaas Ashram imparting modern education to the native children.